Mitch Heimpel: There is only one way Canadians will get the truth about Chinese election interference

Article originally published in The Line

The Public Order Emergency Commission was a useful exercise in one very specific way. It showed us how the sausage got made when it came to the government’s response to the “Freedom” Convoy that showed up on Parliament Hill in the winter of 2022.

Canadians were treated to — or disgusted by, depending on your point of view — a smorgasbord of issues management, buck passing, and slapdash policy making that has come to embody the mechanics of modern government. Oftentimes, communications from the government — either internal, or with other levels of government — could be summed up as someone saying “we really think this ought to be somebody else’s problem.”

That lens into government was handy for the public to have, and it’s now almost impossible to get without a commission of inquiry. We now need one, again, to examine interference by the government of the People’s Republic of China in the 2019 and 2021 Canadian elections

Commissions of inquiry have the legal power to compel documents and testimony in a timely fashion. These are things that decades of well-practised filibustering tactics now prevent parliamentary committees from doing in any real way. Governments also know that if they turn important committees into pitiful, childish, partisan sandbox fights, as Pickering MP Jennifer O’Connell did Tuesday evening, what little media or public interest remains in our thoroughly neutered committee process will disappear completely.

This isn’t a new development; governments have spent years honing their art of refusing to comply with the proper investigative role of committees. Including, in a move that would have been considered too outlandish for the writers of the British classic Yes, Ministersuing the Speaker of the House of Commons.

By the way, the subject matter that caused them to sue? Suspected Chinese espionage at Canada’s high security microbiology lab.

The only material that was withheld from the POEC — and it was incredibly relevant — was the legal opinion given to the government to justify its invocation of the Emergencies Act. But we otherwise got access to reams of correspondence, official documents and testimony that no government would ever turn over to a parliamentary committee.

Ever. They just wouldn’t. They’d sabotage the entire process into oblivion before they’d ever hand over the kind of documents that the POEC could compel them to release.

The reporting by the Globe and Mail‘s Robert Fife and Steve Chase, and Global News’s Sam Cooper, show us that we absolutely need to go through this exercise again. And it must be a commission of inquiry. We’ve seen all this from the government before on just about anything to do with foreign interference ‚ especially foreign interference that involves Beijing.

First, we’ll get the carefully couched denial. 

Next, we’ll get the fake surprise. (This is probably the stage we’re at right now).

Then, we’ll get the claim that this is being referred to an “independent body” that isn’t really independent. 

That’s usually followed by accusations of political games.

Finally, we’ll learn how this is a “teachable moment” for everyone.

Let’s not do that again. Interference in our elections is a serious matter. It’s a national security matter. It involves public confidence in our most sacred institution — that of the free and fair elections which determine who governs us. As we did with the Rouleau Commission, we have evidence of significant institutional failure on the part of those entrusted with protecting our democracy from foreign interference. In their exceptional expose, the Globe and Mail outlines that “sympathetic donors” were encouraged to donate to the campaigns of certain candidates, and that those campaigns then, illegally, returned money to donors to cover the difference between the donation and the tax receipt received from the federal government.

They were assured by Chinese diplomats that this would occur. The same diplomats allegedly arranged for certain businesses to hire students that would then work as campaign volunteers.

All of this should have been reported to Elections Canada, and to the RCMP. We have only carefully couched denials from the RCMP that pertain to the 2019 election campaign and the increasingly suspiciously timed retirement of Commissioner Lucki to suggest that anything like that might have happened at all.

We need to get to the bottom of this, and it has to happen in public. It cannot be handled in secret by that National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians , which is no doubt what the government will suggest and would prefer. It has to happen in public because elections are a public transparency exercise by their very nature, and that is what was reportedly interfered with. It has to happen in public because the allegations are serious, up to and including that elected officials benefitted from money and volunteers that were knowingly solicited by a foreign actor. It has to happen in public because the underlying issue is confidence in our system of democracy and there is no way to use a secretive process to maintain or improve public confidence.

And, frankly, it has to happen in public, because the public should get to make up their own minds about how serious this was, and how vulnerable certain among our political class have allowed us to become to this kind of interference.

On Friday September 3rd, 2021, I was driving back to Ottawa from Montreal with a colleague from the Conservative campaign. I was at the wheel because he had done the driving on our way to Montreal for the TVA debate, which had happened the day before. On the drive back, as the United Counties of Prescott and Russell whizzed by us on the 417, I got a front row seat to my colleague fielding a seemingly never-ending stream of calls from candidates in British Columbia about activity on WeChat, a social media app popular in China and among Chinese expatriates. The activity seemed coordinated, they were telling him, and he was calling back into the war room to brief the higher-ups on what he was hearing.

The Globe and Mail revealed that the Consul General for the People’s Republic of China in Vancouver has since bragged about defeating two Conservative candidates in the 2021 elections.

What we knew then, and what we know now, have collided.

The public deserves the full story. There is only one way they’ll get it.

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